Halt gender critical book launch, Edinburgh told by UCU branch

‘Astonishing demand’ to suspend book launch over claims that its essays ‘delegimitise trans people’ shows activists have been ‘emboldened’, say editors

October 10, 2023
Edinburgh, UK - May 9, 2011 University of Edinburgh in Scotland in the UK. Late in evening
Source: iStock

Union leaders at the University of Edinburgh are calling for the launch of a new book of gender critical essays to be cancelled, claiming the institution must act against an “event that contests the legitimacy of trans people and their rights”.

In a letter to Edinburgh’s principal Sir Peter Mathieson, the local University and College Union branch committee asks the university to stop a public event to mark the launch of a new Routledge book, titled Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader, due to be held on 11 October.

The book, which is billed by its publisher as a “much-needed exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and gender identity”, includes essays by some of the UK’s best-known gender critical feminists such as philosopher Kathleen Stock, University of Reading law professor Rosa Freedman and the writer Jane Clare Jones.

However, the letter, which has been circulated to about 2,000 local UCU members, claims Edinburgh has a duty to halt the event because it would conflict with the university’s “trans equality policy” that “protects trans staff and students from attacks of delegitimisation” and which states that “transphobic abuse, bullying or harassment will be treated very seriously”.

“We ask that you suspend the book launch and engage and consult with trans staff and students – including the University of Edinburgh’s very own experts on trans and LGBTQ+ issues – to ensure that these kinds of events are investigated before they be allowed on campus,” states the letter, which was sent on 5 October.

Contributors to the book, the letter claims, are responsible for making derogatory claims about trans people in a film made by two UK academics, titled Adult Human Female. Two screenings of the documentary due to be held at Edinburgh were scrapped after protests by trans activists, with an April showing stopped after an activist stood in front of an entrance. Further protests were expected to take place outside the book launch.

The Edinburgh academic Shereen Benjamin is accused in the letter of “framing trans people and their rights as ‘gender ideology,’ with the fait accompli that trans people’s existence – like any ideology or theory – can be ‘debunked’”.

This “false framing” is part of a “strategy” to represent support for trans rights as an “ideology”, the letter says, adding that the “persistent attempt of the book at dehumanisation and reducing trans people to an abstract anomaly or sinister cabal whose existence can be debunked or exposed not only represents a form of harassment in its implication for trans people’s legitimacy.

‘Free speech’ must be balanced with responsibilities and restrictions relating to harm caused by certain types of speech, such as those that advocate and disseminate misinformation and smears against the validity of disempowered minorities,” it claims.

In a letter to Sir Peter, however, the book’s co-editors, Alice Sullivan and Selena Todd, professors at UCL and the University of Oxford respectively, say the letter makes “libellous allegations directed at the authors of the book as a whole, and also singles out named individuals”.

“These libellous allegations of transphobia and denying trans people’s existence constitute harassment and contribute to a hostile and discriminatory environment for staff and students at the University of Edinburgh who have the protected characteristic of gender critical belief, which can be summarised as the belief that sex is real and sex matters,” they add.

The “astonishing demand” to stop the event “suggests that opponents of pluralism, rigorous scholarship and open discussion at the University of Edinburgh have been pandered to and emboldened”, continues the response, stating: “It cannot be acceptable to allow staff to send mass defamatory emails which are intended to prevent academics from organising events and from expressing factual and evidence-based views.

“We suggest that there is a positive opportunity here for you to send a message supporting the event and stating that university channels must not be used to make libellous allegations,” add Professor Todd and Professor Sullivan, who say the book provides “calm and compassionate analysis and insight into one of the most fraught debates of our times” and is “exactly the kind of policy engagement which academics have a duty to provide”.

A University of Edinburgh spokeswoman said the institution “attaches great importance to freedom of expression and academic freedom and would not seek to influence any lawful events held on our campus”.

“Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that there will be differing views and opinions. We always encourage respectful debate and discussion, and we remain steadfast in our determination to facilitate a safe environment where challenging topics can be explored. We also firmly uphold the right of people to take part in peaceful and lawful protest,” she added, stating: “As with all events hosted on our campus, we work with event organisers and put measures in place to mitigate safety concerns wherever possible.” 

The attempt to stop the Edinburgh event comes as the Office for Students’ new free speech tsar, Arif Ahmed, said he had “serious cause for concern” about the stifling of free speech on campuses. His remit at the England-only regulator does not, however, cover Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.


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Reader's comments (3)

Trans' self-positing of their gender (a social construct) on birth certificates over-riding observed sex (a social construct) at birth, legitimates trans (a social construct) people, which has happened only very recently across the world. If both sex and gender are social constructs then so is the gender known as trans and the variants. If not, what are your reasons? Gender and sex have been reasoned to be social constructs. That is the trouble with trans, it silences, cancels dissimilar views.
If you do not agree with what someone else chooses to publish, get writing and present your counter arguments. Don't bitch and whine and demand that they should not be entitled to do what you are doing: expressing your own opinions!
When something like this happens my concern for freedom of speech & publication in academia reaches even greater heights.